Katie Kitamura’s new novel, A Separation, begins the way Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend begins — with a phone call about a missing person. The unnamed narrator’s agitated mother-in-law is calling to demand an explanation as to why her son isn’t picking up her phone calls, seemingly unaware (or unwilling to believe) that the young couple, only five years married, has separated months prior. The narrator, having promised her estranged husband that she would keep their separation secret, calmly explains that they are apart because she is working on a translation while he is in Greece, researching a new book on mourning. Unconvinced, the mother-in-law declares that she has made arrangements for the wife to go to Greece to find him. This opening gambit quickly sets the novel in motion, as the narrator must decide whether to tell the truth, permanently severing her obligations toward her mother-in-law, or go on with the charade as the “faithful rather than faithless” wife.
Now on her third novel, Katie Kitamura has garnered praise from an impressive list of writers including Karl Ove Knausgaard (who called A Separation “perfect”) and Jenny Offill (whose novel Dept. of Speculation also traces the dissolution of a marriage). Comparisons have ranged from Patricia Highsmith to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Emotionally muted and spare, Kitamura’s prose style has suited the content of her previous novels — The Longshot (2009) is a Hemingwayesque novel about mixed martial arts; Gone to the Forest (2013) is a violent, fabulist tale about an unspecified colonial revolt — but such cool detachment employed in a story about a broken marriage has a curious effect. It’s counterintuitive and unsettling, but also surprisingly apt, as the story swirls with secrecy and sublimation.
It’s difficult to say more about the plot of A Separation without giving too much way, but one possible entry point might be to read it against Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, a text the narrator has translated. In Balzac’s tale, Colonel Chabert, presumed dead, eventually finds his way back to his wife, who has since moved on and remarried. As a phantom intruding into the present, he completely derails her life and forces her into the unfortunate situation of having committed bigamy without realizing it. Kitamura toys with this basic setup by reversing the circumstances: How might a past partner intrude upon the present as an absence, and consequently, how might one mourn such a partner if he remains in the littoral zone of the mind — not quite dead but not quite alive?
In many ways, dramatizing the otherwise mundane process of “moving on” from a past partner with a missing-person story is appropriate, since both are categorically similar. The narrator muses that a past partner is often relegated to the same status as a dead partner: “A friend used to say, in speaking of her ex-boyfriends (and later three ex-husbands, she was an eternal optimist), he’s dead to me, a phrase I did not especially like, it sounded too violent for what is essentially a regular occurrence, the breakdown of a relationship.” However brutal, the narrator acknowledges that her friend’s reaction — he’s dead to me — may in fact be the healthier response. Later, pages are devoted to a news item surrounding the search for a disappeared cruise ship, where relatives “spoke about the difficulty of grieving, when they did not know whether they should live in hope or, as one of them put it, move on.”
The novel coyly suggests that this inability to “move on” may be a uniquely female problem. Though her tone is unswervingly calm and collected, the narrator’s thoughts nevertheless reveal a quiet panic that stems from frequent eruptions of guilt. There is her anxiety about having “moved on” too quickly — six months after the separation, she is already living with her husband’s friend Yvan. Her conscience is further weighted by an incriminating comment she once heard at a dinner party: “Women are like monkeys, they never let go of one branch until they’ve got ahold of another.” While she recognizes the double standard, noting that “often a man was barely divorced before he was married again, it was only a question of expedience, which was not a cause for shame,” she is helplessly caught between “two laws” — marital law and one’s subjective sense of justice. In a conversation with Yvan:
You haven’t told them, have you?
How could I?
Will you? Is it even important anymore?
I don’t know.
Legally you are his wife.
Legally, according to one set of laws, but according to another —
I mean our internal laws, we try to do what is right.
In the end, events conspire against the wife to ensure that she will never be able to put her husband behind her. Is this novel a cautionary tale or simply a realistic depiction of the inevitable carnage that follows a separation? “Perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than can be constrained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing.” The narrator wryly concludes that in Colonel Chabert, “the countess is the villain of the story…portrayed as callow, manipulative, and superficial.” Wives who choose to separate don’t typically meet a happy end in literature. I am haunted by the ending of Kitamura’s novel, just as I am haunted by the final image of Elena in the Neapolitan novels, Elena who sits alone in her elegant house on the hill, writing of the vicissitudes of love.
By Katie Kitamura